Thursday, September 02, 2010
Starting off With Columbus
William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
William and Carla Phillips introduce readers to the Worlds of Christopher Columbus, unabashedly reviling past historiography. America’s unfamiliarity with the European world that created Columbus had a great deal to do with this skewed representation as much as the historical worship of so great a figure in its history. For much of the nineteenth century America tended to ignore the enslavement of Indians and Columbus’ direct violation of orders from his Spanish sponsors that resulted in his arrest. These very human frailties only top the list. America in this time, however, avoided these frailties for the sake of preserving national dignity.
Washington Irving’s 1828 popular biography of Christopher Columbus set the tone for nearly a century of textbook depictions of the “hero” Columbus. The fourth centenary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, began to erode that romantic vision. Although sluggish immediately following the “Great Man” era of American history (an idea cultivated by Thomas Carlyle), men like Justin Winsor, set out to become Irving’s “great American debunker” and change modern views of Christopher Columbus (Phillips and Phillips, 6).
It cannot be argued that Columbus was an important personality in the development of the New World since 1492. Columbus was, indeed a hero to many Americans. This also holds true for the rest of the world as the Columbian Exchange of ideas and material culture influenced the entirety of the globe. This book did not dispute Christopher Columbus’ contribution to history. Still, that Columbus was simply human and not a “hero,” per se, the Phillipses labored to be understood. They endeavored to set the historical record straight, to encourage other historians to provide a body of Columbian scholarship that contained the known facts about the previously misconstrued Genoan adventurer. They were even successful in portraying a much more complex and convoluted human being that students across America could easily identify with.
This book was as much about the events leading to exploration beyond the eastern Atlantic as it was about Columbus himself. As such, it provides an excellent historical setting and whets the appetite for the discovery to follow. The first third of the Phillipses’ work give an excellent review of the history of navigation, the building technological capability for farther exploration, Asian spice availability, and religious incentives. This book argues that all of these facets of Christopher Columbus’ world need to be fully understood before taking on the daunting task of analyzing the man. The intricacies of following the polestar to reckon latitude, Portuguese expansion before 1492, advances in astronomical and geographic knowledge through Ptolemy, Copernicus, Bacon, d’Ailly, et al., and the Muslim conquest and control of the routes to the east all contributed. Martin Behaim’s 1492 cartographic depiction of the world reflected the remarkably accurate view held by fifteenth-century geographers – only the Americas were missing. That Columbus, or anyone for that matter, would eventually find America was a foregone conclusion. The final puzzle piece would be found.
Many of today’s readers would not understand these contributing factors. At first, Columbus was worshipped and then denounced. History glorified in his fame, then became blinded by Columbus’ all too human and potentially instructional frailty. The Phillipses believe that a lack of understanding of these subtle nuances of history contributed to the early archetypal works that filled our modern history texts with their many apocryphal tales of the “great man.” The new tales carry starkly opposing views, also just as exaggerated. As the saying goes, the truth is often in the middle. True tales of Columbus yet waited for works like this book.
Once the Phillipses established the historical setting for Columbus’ iconic voyage, they carefully began to analyze his origins and physical appearance. Again, there existed controversy in the historiography. Seventy-one portraits appeared in the 1893 Chicago Exposition, few of which resembled the accepted Lorenzo Lotto 1512 painting, commissioned in Venice only six years after Columbus’ death. Still, the discovery of this painting came perhaps not in time for the 400th anniversary celebration and had not even been pronounced “authentic” until 1956. There seems to have been no rhyme or reason to the speculative fascination, however. Columbus himself mentioned his Genoese birth. Still, others, not believing Columbus, speculated that he was English, French, or Spanish. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who wrote only thirty years after Columbus, declared him to be red-headed with freckles, a complexion difficult to find in native Spaniards. The Phillipses demonstrate how simple it can be to lazily accept fact without considering context. For Americans, intent upon hero worship of Christopher Columbus and unfamiliar with Italian culture, this would have resulted in the observed factual distortions.
American historiography was not solely responsible for the misinformation on Columbus. He, himself was quite adept at that business, as much as his father at weaving wool. On an early voyage to the Mediterranean island of Chios, he misidentified many plants as mastic bushes eager to find the popular and expensive perfume base. He later repeated these errors in his zeal to discover new “Asian” spices. Also, Columbus supposedly entered into a chart-making business with his sons, Hernando and Bartolomeo. The Phillipses make it clear from Hernando Colón’s presumed early passages in his father’s biography that historians have assumed more than the documentary evidence revealed. No documentation ever backed this. Besides, what documents remain available to historians are mostly those of Columbus, who had a penchant for exaggeration.
The Phillipses explain every important aspect of Columbus’ life that led to his famous voyage while informing readers of the difficulties involved in the analysis. By no means was this simple. Even though from Genoa, born of weaver-parents Domenico and Susanna Fontanarossa Colombo, leaving at fourteen with a rudimentary education, Columbus’ formative decade in Portugal, they declare, explains the most confusing detail in the documentation – that of his writing almost exclusively in Latin and Portuguese. Even his fortuitous marriage to Felipa Moniz was misconstrued in the past. Columbus, not so downtrodden as he has been presented, received a welcome dowry, but so did most eligible and successful men of his time. Again, Columbus’ story reads somewhat differently in true light.
Even in the face of blaring blunders such as twice trying to sail directly east from the Caribbean, the Phillipses would have us know that Columbus was not an idiot. He knew at least the basics of navigation and geography even if he did not completely understand the nature of the trade winds. His estimates of the earth’s circumference were small, but still acceptable to the learned men of his day. Still, they argue that the impetus for his monumental voyage came from “fables and stories” (Phillips and Phillips, 101). So, he was impressionable. These impressions somehow sparked the idea that something lay to the west. Strange pieces of carved wood, of hitherto unknown species of trees, and large cane plants, all contributed to this idea that eventually became a dream. The human Columbus dreamed, but he was not alone. The wonder of the unknown tantalized many an imagination, not just Columbus. His voyage was no certain success, but a gamble on the unknown that could have cost many lives. Furthermore, these tales delight the expectant reader, a much needed reprieve from the first few chapters of background that, while excellent, did tread wearily at times.
Enthralling, however, were the elaborate and highly decorative stories appended to Columbus’ tale as early as 1534. One included a trip to Iceland, but the documentation for this speculation remained invisible. These European “enhancements” were undoubtedly in response to Columbus’ own exaggerations, but the majority of these tales have developed in America, the results of nineteenth-century romanticism. After all, in contrast to America, Europeans usually regard 1492 as the year that Granada returned to Spain from the hands of the Moors. There was a distinct difference in historiographical motivation on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Like James Loewen before them, the Phillipses want readers to understand that this romanticism has strongly affected past history education in America. A real disservice has been performed to history students, even if Columbus himself would have approved the tales. Columbus’ greatest failing, perhaps, was pride. Vanity would reveal itself many times during his career.
There are many intrigues and amorous devices that Columbus may have used to get approval from the Spanish court of Fernando and Isabel, after having been turned down by King João of Portugal. The writers preserve Columbus’ early struggles and his battle to be understood and accepted. Few of these facts gain as much attention as the voyages themselves, however. Once permission was received, the reader virtually sails beside Columbus, taking in the salt spray and the swells of the sea. The Phillipses best writing in this book captures the maritime adventure upon departing Palos for what would be a long and tenuous voyage.
Another example of Columbus’ vanity stealing the show was the 10,000 maravedis that would go to the first man to sight land. This reward Columbus claimed for himself, as if the glory of being admiral, governor, and collecting ten percent of all the American wealth were not enough. Despite the failings, say the Phillipses, Columbus, as any mariner, kept two sets of numbers in his journal for ease of communication in foreign ports, not so he could deceive his crew. Besides, he would have had to somehow change the logbooks of the other two ships, a difficult trick with the ocean between them. Bartolomé de Las Casas began this rumor out of his ignorance of navigation and paraphrasing Columbus’ logs rather than quoting them directly.
On page 155, the Phillipses finally bring the reader ashore in America, though where, exactly remains a mystery. And, of course, what Columbus finds was not what he expected to find. These are familiar details to most Americans. His disappointment at not finding the riches of Cipango and a desire to impress his sponsors encouraged him to inaugurate the European practice of slavery in America. God rewarded his efforts by allowing Martín Alonzo Pinzón to abscond with the Pinta and also by sinking his flagship, the Santa Maria, to whom Columbus partly attributed his treacherous crew as well. Eventually, the treacherous Pinzón returned (which shone some credit upon Columbus as a navigator) with the Pinta and so ended the first fateful voyage, literally on a wing and a prayer. The Phillipses detail the politics and the fervor that Columbus caused with his green parrots, seven Tainos, and sales pitches. But, they also tell of his trials during subsequent voyages, increased responsibilities, and arrest in great detail. Where a missing account fails them, they replace it with several peripheral accounts to fill the gap.
The latter three voyages allow the Phillipses the chance to really explore Columbus’ character, his questionable ability to command, his desperate desire to receive even posthumous recognition, his gift of elaboration and redirection, but also his ingenuity in the face of adversity. Still, political machinery gained momentum after the great discovery and Columbus barely balanced on the wave that resulted. It only worsened after the riches were finally found. The writers tell that Columbus’ troubles were a result of his vocation as mariner, not an administrator. Still, allowing colonists to make slaves of the natives was directly opposed to his patrons’ orders. Vanity stepped in again and Columbus’ theatrics surprisingly gave him a fourth voyage.
This book revives the thrill of the exploration and the eager anticipation that must have been felt by all on the first voyage to America. Thankfully, the writers steered away from detailed descriptions of spoiled meat, hardtack, weevils, and long sea voyages without baths. Still, the political intrigues and machinations of the European courts were delightfully present in this book, as were the cannibal Caribs and ribald tales of conquest. The effects of the Columbian Exchange were also richly detailed.
William and Carla Phillips explore every facet and in the end, they lift somewhat their mantle as “debunker” to reveal the actual Columbus with all of his faults, but also his talents. In many ways, he seems an even more exciting character than recently believed. As a human being, Columbus remained an extraordinary man. The vaporous romanticism that once surrounded the Genoese adventurer and discoverer of America truly hid the real intricacies of the man himself. The glory of what Columbus did and the tragic mistakes that he made while doing them provide a human tale, one from which all Americans can identify and learn. For himself, Columbus never publically admitted that he did not find Asia, to which the Phillipses offer that his stubborn insistence affected Europeans for decades after his death. That predisposition quickly faded, but the exchange of plants, culture, diseases, and ideas had profound implications forever.